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Western Predictions - Where do the Clippers Fit?

As the season approaches, we'll be flooded with predictions.  This team will win the East, that team will fall out of the playoffs in the West, this coach will be fired, that player will have a break out season.  It's already started, and it will intensify from here. today revealed it's experts' predictions on the Western Conference standings (and I use the term experts uneasily to describe any panel that is open-ended enough to accommodate both Kevin Arnovitz and Bill Walton).  All in all, with the Clippers slotting in 10th in the cumulative predictions, after the nine teams who finished last season with 46 or more wins, it's hard to get too righteously indignant.  33 wins?  Sure it seems more than a little disappointing, and yet it would be a major improvement over 19 wins and 23 wins, n'est-ce pas?

As always, there are complexities here that are difficult to navigate.  In the earlier Insider offering on "Off season Buzz" John Hollinger and Ric Bucher introduced their Clippers entry as follows:

On paper, the Clippers look to be a playoff lock, what with a roster of talent that easily surpasses Houston, Utah and possibly even New Orleans. And yet only a fool would count on a postseason berth after they were the NBA's third-lowest scoring team and tied for the second-worst record last season. Granted, the injury bug hit early and thoroughly, but let's face it: Dysfunction was the No. 1 element that undermined the Clippers' season. As it always seems to do. 

And while I think reasonable people might disagree with their particularly evaluations of comparative talent (sure Houston, but where is Phoenix, and isn't Utah - with four All Stars - actually one of the more talented rosters?), the approach is the one I prefer.  You can't analyze the Clippers in a vacuum - you have to look at them in relation to their competition in the West.  The Playoff race is a zero sum game - in order for 8 teams to get in, 7 teams have to miss out. 

In that sense, I suppose it's gratifying to know that the ESPN panel ranks the Clippers ahead of last season's other sub-.500 Western teams - it helps to limit the discussion of who is competing for those 8 spots.  Having said that, the panel's collective wisdom doesn't see much standings distance in 2009-2010 between Clippers (33 wins), the Thunder (32 wins) and the Warriors (31 wins).  So including those three teams in the discussion, we're up to a dozen teams with playoff potential.

Roster of Talent

The Clippers do indeed look talented on paper.  You don't even have to pad to make these guys' resumes look good:

  • Two time All Star Baron Davis at point guard
  • 2008 second team All Rookie selection Eric Gordon at shooting guard
  • 2007 first team All Rookie selection Al Thornton at small forward
  • 2009 first overall pick and presumptive Rookie of the Year Blake Griffin at power forward
  • 2007 NBA Defensive Player of the Year Marcus Camby at center

In addition to that possible starting lineup of NBA award winners, the Clippers still have Chris Kaman, who has when healthy produced All Star worthy numbers, and they also added several players who were fully capable of starting in their prior NBA gigs (Rasual Butler, Sebasitan Telfair, Craig Smith) to add depth.  And then there's intriguing second year player DeAndre Jordan.  In short, this team goes 9 or 10 deep in talent.  And they still have rosters spots, a trade exception, and the mid-level exception to use to try to improve further.

But that chock-full-of-talent roster conceals the single biggest misgiving about the 09-10 Clippers.  That is, much of that talent was around last season as well, when the team racked up 63 losses, second most in the entire NBA.  Injuries explain some of that - but certainly not all of it.  Where are the marquee wins when a healthy roster played well?  The team had two wins over opponents with winning records since Dec. 13 - hard to figure how an even similar roster could be talking about the playoffs a few months later.

So which is it?  Did last year's team under-acheive massively, putting the fans in the uncomfortable position of arguing that this year's team will be better partly because this year's team will give a crap?  Was there some fundamental 'chemistry' problem?  If it was all chemistry, then does the addition of Blake Griffin coupled with the subtraction of Zach Randolph fix the formula?  Or are the unstable and incompatible compounds (say for instance, the point guard and the coach) still in the test tube?

The Competition

Most experts seem to think that seven of the eight Western Conference playoff teams from last season will return to post season play this season.  I'm going to get a little more granular.  There are three teams (the Lakers, Spurs and Blazers) who (a) made the playoffs and (b) got better, or at least not much worse - and those three are lead pipe cinches to make the playoffs this year barring catastrophic injuries.  The rest of the teams have a looming issue or two which warrants examination.

In order to milk a little more content out of this, I have decided to look at those teams in separate posts over the coming days.  For the time being, let's focus just on what it would take to get the Clippers into the playoffs.  Can they finish ahead of not just the bad teams like the Thunder and the Warriors, but also of a couple of formerly plus-.500 teams, the Suns and the Rockets?

In a word, yes.

The Rockets are certainly going to be an interesting test case this season.  For all of his 'moneyball', super-computer driven stats, Daryl Morey actually build the Rockets in the tried and true NBA fashion - with maximum contracts to two super-mega stars.  Sahq and Kobe and a cast of Hollywood extras won three rings for the Lakers at the beginning of the decade - so it's not really revolutionary to build a team around Tracey McGrady and Yao Ming.  The only problem is, they can't stay on the court.  Either Yao or TMac (sometimes both) have missed significant portions of the last 4 seasons - and this season will be no different.  Despite recent mildly positive news for both of them, the simple fact remains - Yao is expected to miss the entire season, while TMac is attempting to return from surgery at the age of 30.  Everyone loves all of the Rockets' role players - Luis Scola, Shane Battier, Trevor Ariza, Aaron Brooks, Carl Landry - and inexplicably the were able to beat the Lakers a couple of times with that group.  But face it - adrenaline may be able to carry you though a couple of games, but you need some talent over the course of an 82 game season.  Role players only make sense when they are, you know, filling roles, around the leading men.  With Yao and TMac and Ron Artest all out, there are no leading men in Houston.  If they make the playoffs (or even finish with a decent record), everyone in the NBA will be poaching stat geeks from Morey's staff.  But it won't happen. 

The Suns missed the playoffs last season, but won 46 games in the process.  ESPN has them grabbing the final spot this season.  It seems as if they receive the honor, not by any implication that the team has improved, but by default.  The Rockets are in trouble, and it's pretty damn hard to elevate the Clippers, Thunder or Warriors to that level at this point.  But are the Suns really playoff-worthy?

If you take the last 29 games from last season, after Alvin Gentry took over as head coach and after Amare Stoudemire got hurt, the Suns went 16-13.  That's better than I would have expected without Amare, quite frankly.  Now, you remove Shaquille O'Neal, since traded to Cleveland for Sasha Pavlovic (you read that correctly) and add Amare back in, and you can certainly argue that the Suns get better.  After all, Gentry is returning them to the D'Antoni run and fun days, and Amare is obviously a better fit for that system than Shaq.  But you have to look at some other factors as well - Grant Hill will be 37 in a month, and Steve Nash will be 36 before the All Star break.  And while I realize that the D'Antoni Suns ran up some gaudy win totals with Shawn Marion at power forward, can this team really survive a season Grant Hill starting at the four?  Marion has averaged 9.9 rebounds per game in his career - Hill, 6.6. 

If you want to play a more traditional front line, who exactly is going to start in Phoenix?  Second year player Robin Lopez?  Pony tail guy Louis Amundson?  Or maybe Channing Frye?  The simple fact is, none of these players have shown that they are quality NBA starters to this point.  It doesn't mean that they can't do it - maybe they'll step up and surprise everyone - but the simple fact is, after Amare it's pretty desolate up front for the Suns.  Now, you may be saying "That's just how it was under D'Antoni and it didn't stop them."  Well, not really.  For one thing, Marion was putting up All Pro numbers from the four spot, even if he wasn't a typical four.  Hill is just not going to do that.  And don't forget that Boris Diaw, Kurt Thomas and, yes, even Tim Thomas, provided significant positive contributions to those teams.  I just don't see anyone on the Suns current roster who is going to do that, with the possible exception of Earl Clark.

Last thing on the Suns - don't forget that they have a very high payroll and a very parsimonious owner.  With Stoudemire in the final year of his contract and Nash and Hill closer to 40 than 30, isn't an 8th seed the last thing these guys want?  Do they really want to squeak into the playoffs, get trounced by the Lakers, and then lose Stoudemire this summer as Hill and Nash continue their decline?  This is a team that may look very, very different in February than it does now - I would not be surprised if they decide to start thinking about this future sometime in the next few months and opt out of the playoff race.

So I don't find it difficult to make the argument that the Clippers will be better than the Rockets or the Suns.  In fact, I think I can safely say that the Clippers SHOULD be better than Houston or Phoenix.  Will they be?  That's an entirely different question.